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The Lost Conspiracy

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On an island of sandy beaches, dense jungles, and slumbering volcanoes, colonists seek to apply archaic laws to a new land, bounty hunters stalk the living for the ashes of their funerary pyres, and a smiling tribe is despised by all as traitorous murderers. It is here, in the midst of ancient tensions and new calamity, that two sisters are caught in a deadly web of deceits.

Arilou is proclaimed a beautiful prophetess one of the island's precious oracles: a Lost. Hathin, her junior, is her nearly invisible attendant. But neither Arilou nor Hathin is exactly what she seems, and they live a lie that is carefully constructed and jealously guarded.

When the sisters are unknowingly drawn into a sinister, island-wide conspiracy, quiet, unobtrusive Hathin must journey beyond all she has ever known of her world and of herself in a desperate attempt to save them both. As the stakes mount and falsehoods unravel, she discovers that the only thing more dangerous than the secret she hides is the truth she must uncover.

576 pages, Hardcover

First published December 16, 2008

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About the author

Frances Hardinge

33 books2,447 followers
Frances Hardinge spent her childhood in a huge, isolated old house in a small, strange village, and the two things inspired her to write strange, magical stories from an early age. She studied English at Oxford University and now lives in Oxford, England.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 491 reviews
Profile Image for Nataliya.
746 reviews11.9k followers
April 27, 2023
"Well, what did I want, recognition? No, Hathin realized, I did everything I did because, well, I’m me."
Frances Hardinge and her oddball magical fantastical stories that, far from the simplicity often expected of books aimed at slightly less wrinkled audience, are filled with thought-provoking multilayered and often ambiguous complexity, are undoubtedly my best literary discovery of 2013 so far. Her stories are soaked in belief that children's literature can in no way be inferior to that meant for adults, that a book "just for kids" is nonsense because excellent literature knows no age restrictions.

And so, true to this, Gullstruck Island (also known as The Lost Conspiracy in the U.S.) is built of so many threads that when put together create the vibrant tapestry of rich living world, intensely real and yet wholly imagined, with the unavoidable ugliness bubbling under its surface - the easiness with which prejudice and genocide can enter society, the stifling power of bureaucracy, and the mindless ugliness of the times when people stop being people and become the mob instead.

To borrow a phrase from China Miéville, Gullstruck Island is a story of the Un-Chosen One, a story of eternal sidekick not meant for anything particularly great, not a part of a greater plan or a prophecy or destiny hidden in some snowflake-special bloodline - no, just a person meant to be in the background, meant to be invisible, meant to be a supporting character and little else, who is forced to take center stage because sometimes someone just needs to do something when world is baring its teeth ready to bite.
"Mob wasn’t people. It took people and folded their faces like paper, leaving hard lines of anger and fear that didn’t belong to them."
Gullstruck Island, home to the ever-moody volcano chain towering over it in perilous slumber, is inhabited by an amalgam of native tribes that have mixed with colonizers of a few centuries ago and adopted the colonizers' worship of the dead ancestors, turning over the best areas of the island to the Domain of the Dead, the Ashlands. It is also a home to the Lost, the few special ones able to separate their senses from the body and send them miles and miles away independently from each other:
"Indeed, a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea."
And Gullstruck is also home to the Lace, a small isolated tribe despised by everyone for the deeds of centuries ago, distinct with their obligatory never-faltering smiles and jewelled teeth, pushed to the fringes of this society, never accepted but grudgingly tolerated, mocked for their adherence to the legends of long ago, and underneath all the mockery and contempt persistently feared. And there is only a perilously thin edge separating distrust and fear from hatred, violence and tragedy.
"You never knew where you were with the smilers of the Lace. They were all but outcast, distrusted by everyone, scratching out a living in outskirt shanty towns or dusty little fishing villages."

"It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it. Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody would stop them because it was all only a joke..."

Arilou is the hope of her people - a breathtakingly gorgeous girl who appears to be one of the revered Lost, a rare occurrence among the Lace. Hathin, on the other hand, was always an afterthought, a child meant to be little but a faithful attendant to her sister Arilou, and eventually quietly expected to cover up for her as suspicion arises that Lady Arilou may in fact just be, as people are on the verge of reluctantly almost-admitting, an "imbecile". In the meantime, Hathin is well-used to being, for all intents and purposes, invisible. "Perhaps if a person went unnoticed for a long time the colour bled out of them, and they sank into greyness."
"As it happened, the girl supporting Arilou had a name too. It was designed to sound like the settling of dust, a name that was meant to go unnoticed. She was as anonymous as dust, and Skein gave her not the slightest thought. Neither would you. In fact, you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all."
And then the unthinkable happens, and Hathin is faced with more pain than anyone should ever experience, and she makes a choice to step out of the shadows and take a lead - because her celebrated sister is little but a burden, and her home is destroyed, and genocide against her people is in full swing, and revenge appears the only viable option, and grief is suffocating, and ability to think around the corners from years as Arilou's "mouthpiece" may come in handy when nothing else is left.

But discarding invisibility and taking center stage is not without consequences, and negotiating with mercurial volcanoes can lead to burial under tons of ash.
"Hathin was nowhere. Hathin was everywhere. Everything in the deathly landscape had her secretiveness, her careful blandness, her quietness, her stubborness. Hathin, whispered the wind-borne dust as it settled on the slopes. Hathin, lisped the ash as it rained upon the plain."

Hathin takes on a lot in her journey in this book. There are sleeping perilous volcanoes that cannot be offended for the fear of the most dire consequences. There are scared closed-minded people that are easily led by manipulators who know which buttons to push, which fears to capitalize on to turn people into a raging mob. There are age-old traditions and superstitions some of which can be discarded and some of which should be listened to - but which ones?

And of course, there are those tirelessly working behind the scenes, making the world spin in the ways they would like it to, the invisible puppeteers holding the multitude of strings, the manipulators hidden in plain sight - because, perhaps, we choose not to see them. After all, Hathin herself knows how perilously easy it is to become invisible.
"And yet, while Minchard Prox slept, things were happening across the island which he had not guessed at as he reshaped the world with his pencil."

"There was, he reflected, a greatness that came only with a certain kind of blindness. Prox had a mind that clung to order, a world of properly folded napkins, account books, modes of address when meeting a duchess. Papers were his servitors – he could make them perform and pirouette."
This is the story of loss and grief, of duty and obligation, of courage and defiance, of traditions and customs, of bureaucracy and power, of legends and reality, of childhood and growing up, of trust and betrayals, of grudges and resentment, of ability to forgive and move on, of family and love, of wounds and pain and the ocean of hurt, and of amazing resilience and necessity to make the world whole again.
'What do I do if nobody needs me?’
‘What do you want to do?’ Prox asked quietly.
And, of course, it's the story of finding yourself and learning to live with the new you. And the story of making choices that you will have to live with, and they all leave consequences. And the story that I someday plan to strategically leave just within the reach of my future hypothetical daughter and quietly watch her eyes light up as she discovers the oddball magic Frances Hardinge brings into the world through her stories.
5 stars.
"Who am I? The shell-selling Lace girl, the attendant of Lady Arilou, Mother Govrie’s other daughter, the thing of dust, the victim, the revenger, the diplomat, the crowd-witch, the killer, the rescuer, the pirate?

I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be."

Recommended by: Catie
Profile Image for Betsy.
Author 8 books2,754 followers
August 1, 2009
I think that as adult reviewers of books for children and teens we have a duty to separate ourselves from our material and give our books an impartial eye, one and all. As a reviewer, I don’t know how wise it is for me to get as excited as a ten-year-old when the newest book from a favorite children’s author comes out. If I adopt a fangirl mindset then how impartial a reviewer can I be? I have a requirement, nay, a duty to not enjoy a book too much when I read it. I must remain calm and cool and collected at all times, no matter how thrilling the story or intriguing the characters.

Dost thou think the children’s book reviewer doth protest too much?

She doth.

She doth indeed because at 576 pages I had just one thought upon finishing Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy: It's already ended? As I see it, 576 pages somehow manages, in spite of all the odds, to be too short. You couldn’t cut a scene, a character, or a word in this book for the 10 and up set without upsetting the flow. Filled with sentient volcanoes, gem-studded teeth, villains, heroes, revenge, love, and the world’s most frightening dentist, this is a book to rival The Princess Bride in scope, adventure, and excitement. It’s Hardinge’s magnum opus. One that I dearly hope both kids and adults enjoy in equal measure.

Gullstruck Island. Colonized by the Cavalcaste more than two centuries ago. Populated by various tribes, amongst them the always smiling Lace. Home of humans known as “the Lost” who are capable of allowing their senses to leave their bodies “like a hook on a fishing line”, which gives them the ability to roam the island as messengers and spies. Now, for the first time, a Lost has been discovered amongst the Lace, and not the Cavalcaste. But when a Lost inspector and his aide come to test her, it starts a chain reaction no one could anticipate. The Lost inspector dies while there, and his aide disappears. So Hathin, a girl born and raised to be the invisible helper to her impossible sister, finds the weight of the world resting on his slim shoulders. Someone has it in for the Lace, and it’s up to Hathin to find help, escape and outwit her enemies, appease the island’s volcanoes, and uncover a conspiracy before everything and everyone she loves is gone.

I've delayed writing this review for a time because I have been hoping that the words to describe this book would march faithfully from my brain into my typing fingertips without hemming and hawing much. This has not happened. So I’m forced to try to explain to you what’s going on here, but the only way to do it is to lump it all together in one big run-on sentence. Deep breath now. Hardinge has written the ultimate metaphor for colonization, taking into account the prejudices and miscommunications inherent in the minds of both the colonizers and the colonized, the “savagery”, the abuse of natives, and even the rebel factions of native people and their need for revenge against various oppressions. Phew! But wait. There’s more. All this is honed into a narrative that is subtle with its messages. You aren't thumped over the head with the didactic stick with this book. Instead the story seems to seep into your skin, undetected and by this strange osmosis you get the point.

The colonization aspects of the story are meticulously worked out. You get the impression that you could ask Hardinge anything about this island and she would have an answer for you right at hand. It’s the kind of feeling I only get once in a while. J.K. Rowling could do it. So could Tolkien. D.M. Cornish could do it with his Monster Blood Tattoo titles. And now Hardinge has that ability as well. She’s able to discuss an island where the settlers’ original homeland is used to dealing with ice and snow, so their laws have no bearing on the problems faced in this tropical isle. “Port Suddenwind’s edicts could cope with thieves who stole sledges or furs but not those who ran off with jade or coconut rum. They could cope with murderers who tricked victims onto thin ice but not those who boiled jellyfish pulp to make poisons.” Hardinge also deals eloquently with prejudices. At one point a Cavalcaste makes a joke about little Hathin carrying one of them away as a sacrifice. “It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.”

The language here was the real draw for me. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-turned Hardinge verse. In this book you encounter lines like “As Hathin ran forward, she could feel the stares crystallize on her skin like salt.” Or how about, “And then Therrot flung himself backward on the slope and howled at the hills, for true joy like true pain does not care how it looks or sounds.” Hardinge also describes this world thoroughly. So potent was the landscape in my mind that I kept flipping to the front of the book, convinced that I’d find a map there. I must have done this about four times, forgetting after each glance that there was no such map to be found. Something about the writing convinced me that I could actually see the island. But when I went back to check, there was never anything there.

In the past I’ve liked also Hardinge’s characters. I’ve been intrigued by their tales and I've enjoyed watching them learn and grow. But for the first time this author has created people that I not just believed in, but wanted desperately to succeed. Hathin was born to be invisible in every possible way. Yet in the course of her struggle she shows uncommon strength and ends up a highly visible human being, not to mention one I wouldn’t want to tangle with. It’s the ultimate fantasy for every bookish girl who picks up this novel. From existing in the shadow of your more important sister, to legend. But it wasn’t just Hathin. I really cared about most of the characters in this book. I liked the roving dentist Jimboly until her true psychosis came to light (and how much more creepy is it to have a bad guy with a good sense of humor and a fine laugh?). I particularly liked the Cavalcaste character of Prox. I liked him so much that when he disappeared in the narrative at one point I found myself desperately paging through future parts of the book to find him again. I won’t tell you if I succeeded.

There’s a lot of action as well. I guess that’s sort of a given when a fair number of your characters are volcanoes. Still, between the Lost flying, villages getting slaughtered, the fights, the chaos, and the greed, you never really know what Hardinge is going to pull next. One villain in the tale is an otherworldly Ashwalker, a man who turns his victims into ashes so that he can take their souls and turn them into his protective clothes. The escape scenes from him are nail biting, edge-of-the-seat sequences. Probably my favorite, and weirdest, moment in the book is straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It involves one character holding a knife to a girl’s throat, while another character threatens a bird, and a third is close to smashing a . . . lobster. It’s ridiculous, but it works. You’ll see.

To be fair, I enjoyed Hardinge’s previous novels published here in America, Fly By Night and Well Witched very much. But I could see how kids wouldn’t always go for them. Fly By Night was a strange little creature, creating its own perfect little world within a kind of timeslip pseudo-Dickensian setting. It was steampunk without the punk. An acquired taste. Well Witched was geared to be a little more mainstream, but even so it felt like Hardinge was holding herself back. Holding herself back for what? For this epic storyline, it seems. I have no qualms about saying that The Lost Conspiracy is this woman's best book yet. Somehow, by letting her freak flag fly, Hardinge has gone beyond her other two books and created something that will actually be more accessible than either the previous volumes were. She’s at her best when she’s in the grips of her own particular form of madness. Sure, kids will have to clarify early on who the colonizers are and who the colonized be, but that’s explained clearly enough. What they will find when they read this is that this is a world like nothing they’ve ever encountered before and that they'll never want to leave. Beloved.

Ages 10 and up.
910 reviews256 followers
January 11, 2019
How funny to think that when I read this I would never have anticipated my entire Masters thesis research would begin by centering around ideas that this book has perfected.

This really really deserves an amazing review. I can't write even a half decent one right now - not until work is over for the year and christmas and all its madness has passed, and I can sit down and try and formulate words that might, maybe, come close to describing this book. Another read may be in order. (Another read is definitely in order)

One thing I will say - the only thing that felt naggingly familiar throughout the book (amidst all the strange new uniqueness of everything) was the relationship between the volcanoes - the aloof Sorrow standing apart from the two warriors who had fought over her. Only at the end did the obvious hit me (because I read the author explaining it): the inspiration was, of course, the story of Taranaki, Tongariro and Pihanga. As half my family is from Taranaki and the tale is such a familiar one, I can't believe I missed it!

With this new-found knowledge, here are some very Taranaki(ish) pictures (admittedly many of them mine, it's hard to find others through mere Google search that do the place justice) that I can't get out of my head in relation to Gullstruck Island:

Unknown beach near Tongaporutu, Taranaki (My photo...)

Pink and White Terraces, Rotorua

Mist over the Tongaporutu River (...also mine)

Taranaki cliff

Sunset, Taranaki (Mine again...)

This is starting to feel less like excitement over a familiar landscape, and more like shameless self promotion - just one more:

Rapanui Beach, Taranaki

(There's more here if you're interested)
Profile Image for Justine.
1,134 reviews309 followers
March 21, 2017
While Cuckoo Song remains my favourite Hardinge book, Gullstruck Island is very good. I continue to be amazed by the depth of creativity and fine quality of writing that are trademark elements in all of Hardinge's work.

The island setting is richly detailed in geography and culture, and the characters are, as always, impressively singular. True to all of Hardinge's tales this story has some exceptionally dark elements, and delves deep into the relationships that bind people together, whether through blood or circumstances. The main character, Hathin, pushes forward bravely in the face of murder, conspiracy, personal loss, and deep-seated ethnic prejudice. She strives to define her identity and her place in the world, and at the end leaves us feeling richer for the experience.

Who am I? The shell-selling Lace girl, the attendant of Lady Arilou, Mother Govrie's other daughter, the thing of dust, the victim, the revenger, the diplomat, the crowd-witch, the killer, the rescuer, the pirate?

I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.
Profile Image for TheBookSmugglers.
669 reviews1,984 followers
August 17, 2012
Ana’s Take:

This probably sounds extremely clichéd, but reading a Frances Hardinge book is like entering a whole new world. Take Gullstruck Island for example: where consuming a certain type of fish allows one a glimpse of the future; where a beetle song is deadly; and where different peoples fight for survival, as the places for the honoured dead expand at the expense of the places for the living. On one small corner of the island, the Lace – who smile all the time with their adorned teeth and whose names imitate the sounds of nature so that they don’t draw attention from the volatile, living volcanoes that pepper the island – struggle against poverty and overwhelming prejudice.

Their only hope is their Lost, Arilou, who might one day become the most important person on the island and bring riches to the Lace. Born only occasionally and respected for their abilities, the Lost are a different people on their own. Able to send their senses away from their bodies and wander around, they function as the island’s main form of communication across towns and as a sort of sage figure, their important political role unspoken rather than openly asserted.

Arilou is a different Lost though – someone whose mind wanders and rarely comes back. She can’t communicate and that is the best kept secret amongst the Lace, a secret shared and understood without being spoken out loud. Enter Hathin: Arilou’s unassuming sister, born especially to take care of Arilou, to be there for her at all times and to speak on her behalf. It is on her young shoulders that the fate of the Lace truly lies and she lives with this truth every single day of her life.

But then…the Lost start to die mysteriously. All of them are gone except for Arilou and so a history of mistrust and prejudice leads to the Lace being found guilty. Arilou and Hathin must run for their lives but how can the duo survive when one of them can hardly function on her own, on an island where everybody hates them and with an assassin on their track?

And this barely scratches the surface of Gullstruck Island.

Adventurous, wildly imaginative, engaging, thought-provoking, often heartbreaking, always inspiring, Gullstruck Island soars powerfully and beautifully. I feel like a broken record but Frances Hardinge’s imagination is otherworldly and awe-inspiring. It frustrates me a little bit that I do not have the equivalent talent (LOL, how could I) in order to express how good her books are, how awesome Gullstruck Island is. I always feel when I am writing a review of one of her books that I am woefully boring and incapable to convey the sheers brilliance of her stories. I tend to dwell on certain aspects like her powerful social commentary or her heroines’ incredible story arcs and then miss things like…say, the Reckoning in Gullstruck Island. They are group of Lace warriors who abjured their older lives so that they can avenge the death of those they loved and whose deadly weapons are anything they can get a hold of. And then there is the whole thing about the difference between revenge and justice and how different people choose different ways and it is awesome.

The best thing is how Gullstruck Island (the place) is a completely different, original setting in which familiar themes of friendship, sisterhood, coming of age, overcoming prejudice and finding one’s place in the world are explored without a shadow of clichéd writing or oversimplification.

A theme that runs through Gullstruck Island is the insidious nature of prejudice which sometimes is not even OVERT and can even be disguised as friendly. Take this quote for example:

It was a joke, but centuries of distrust and fear lay behind it.

Soon somebody would say something that was sharper and harder, but it would still be a joke. And then there would be a remark like a punch in the gut, but made as a joke. And then they would detain her if she tried to leave, and nobody woujld stop them because it was all only a joke…

Look at me, I am going on and on about things and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the characters are all incredibly well done and I loved them and I hated them and I feared for them and I rooted for them. But most especially, Hathin is such an amazingly drawn, complex protagonist and her arc is inspiring (how many times have I used this word in this review?) and her actions are stirring and affecting. From her complicated relationship with her sister to the way she feels about her place in the world, it is impossible not to empathise with this character. And world, why can’t we have female protagonists like these all the time?

I seriously believe that there is nothing quite like Frances Hardinge’s books out there at the moment – in any shape or form (or genre and age group).

Dear Frances Hardinge: you have ruined me for other books this year and I love you for it.

And I will just finish with my favourite quote from the book:

“I am anything I wish to be. The world cannot choose for me. No, it is for me to choose what the world shall be.”

Thea’s Take:

Yes, yes, yes. Everything that Ana said. I have jumped on the Frances Hardinge bandwagon and have no plans of jumping off. Gullstruck Island is a beautiful, wildly imaginative book that is unlike most anything else out on the market today. Heck, I can’t think of any author in the YA or even adult space that possesses the same imaginative scope as Frances Hardinge.

In Gullstruck Island, we are introduced to an island-society, stratified by different groups of people – varied in their beliefs, in terms of their tribal representations, appearance, and history. Our heroine, Hathin, is one of the Lace – a group of peoples on Gullstruck, marginalized because of their air of perceived secrecy and duplicity, a prejudice that dates back to a time when the always-smiling Lace secretly killed and sacrificed humans to placate the volcanoes on the island. Since that horrific discovery generations earlier, the Lace have been ostracized and demonized by all other tribes on the island, from the Bitter-Fruit clan to the Sours. The one silver lining that the Lace have is Arilou – the Lost are rare on Gullstruck, but there has never been a Lost Lace before, so the respect and power that comes with having a Lady Lost is a huge boon to Arilou’s particular tribe (the Hollow Beasts).

There’s only one problem: Arilou, for all her beauty and seeming appearance of a Lady Lost, has never shown a sign that she is anything more than a mentally handicapped girl. This is the Hollow Beasts’ greatest secret, and all falls on the shoulders of young Hathin, Arilou’s sister and “interpreter” who, over the years, has cultivated a commanding voice for Arilou all the while making herself invisible and insignificant to any inquiring outsiders. When a pair of inspectors come to test Arilou and ensure she is, in fact, one of the Lost, things look bad for Hathin and her tribe. When one of the inspectors dies suddenly, and the other goes missing, marooned on the open ocean, things look even worse.

Someone is blaming their deaths on the Hathin’s people, and single-handedly leading an already Lace-prejudiced populace into an angry mob that seeks to wipe Hathin’s tribe from Gullstruck. It is up to Hathin to save Arilou, to avenge her tribe, and save the Lace from annihilation.

I cannot express how complex this book is, and how carefully and completely Frances Hardinge creates the world of Gullstruck and all its various peoples. The central themes of discrimination, fear, and unwarranted prejudice, stirred by heated to a frenzy by some very nasty individuals is not an unfamiliar one – finding an ethnic group or people of a different belief system to blame for misfortune is, unfortunately, a prevalent theme in human nature. In Gullstruck Island, Hardinge examines these ugly human sentiments with careful attentiveness and draws these historical parallels without ever seeming heavy-handed or didactic. This is the stuff of great writing, folks – and Hardinge handles these very important topics with all the grace and import they deserve.

But beyond the social strata and commentary, Hardinge also manages to simply create a world that is amazingly, breathtakingly full. It’s hard to believe that Gullstruck Island is not a real place, with real people! We learn the different languages that these people speak (“Nundesrruth” short for “not under this roof” is a pidgin dialect, versus “Doorsy” which is the formal spoken and written language on the island). More than that, we see their different customs and beliefs, from the Lace’s affinity for smiling and drilling precious jewels in their teeth and creating long strands of shell jewelry, to the Ash people’s hunger for human ash to create and dye their skins and their goods. There are familiar elements from many different cultures and civilizations, but Hardinge makes these inhabitants completely her own.

And the characters! And the plot twists! What more can I say that Ana hasn’t already said? I loved Hathin with the force of a thousand supernovas. I loved her dedication to her sister Arilou, her feelings of pain and fear and ineptitude when her tribe is massacred, her desire to seek revenge and join the Reckoning. I loved Arilou, too, and the twists that come with her character in particular. There are villains and friends aplenty in Gullstruck Island, all believable and formidable enough, given texture and distinction with Hardinge’s clever prose.

If I had one complaint about this book – which isn’t so much a complaint as a note – it is that Gullstruck Island is unnecessarily long. This is something that I’ve noticed with Hardinge’s other books, and I think a detriment to her work. This title, as with A Face Like Glass are very long, very dense creatures that require days of reading time – and I’m an adult, that can read pretty quickly! Gullstruck Island is not the same type of quick, compulsive read that a Harry Potter or Twilight novel is – and I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do think this is a reason why Frances Hardinge is not a household name. A middle grade level reader or YA reader, the target reader to which Hardinge’s books are aimed, likely does not have hours and hours of reading time. Gullstruck Island is a wonderful, complex novel as it is, but it probably could stand some careful pruning – which would not only help the story move along in a more direct fashion, but could also help its marketability to new audiences.

That said, I loved this book just way it is, and Gullstruck Island is absolutely one of my notable reads of 2012 (it would’ve made my top 10, had it been published in 2012!). Wholeheartedly, unabashedly recommended.
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641 reviews526 followers
February 9, 2013
Straight up, I'm not going to do this justice. It's so good in ways I'm still trying to fully articulate a week later.

It's young adult fantasy about post-colonialism. Also sisters, and secrets, and revenge, and people who can fling their senses hundreds of miles away, and ashes, and volcanic love triangles (Me: It has volcanic love triangles! My girlfriend: . . . Their love is so hot? Me: No, I mean there's three volcanoes. In a love triangle.)

It's a book that spends hundreds of pages teetering, teetering on the brink of ethnic cleansing, and it made me laugh. It is tight and accomplished and wrenching and wonderful and strange and smart as hell. And okay, one reason I'm not telling you about the actual story is I honestly don't know where to start.

So many of you guys are going to go nuts over this, and I can't wait.
Profile Image for Beth.
1,145 reviews114 followers
December 7, 2020
December 2020: Still great. More pointed than I remember (reading in light of the Hardinge books which follow it) and yet it’s successful anyway, since primarily it tells the story of Hathin. I am the dirt that will bury you - it leaps off the page, and it’s so powerful. So is that ending. So is that exploration of cultural differences and the casual things people say and what it takes to bridge a divide... All of this, wrapped up in a story of myth and mountains and murder -

This might not be as readable as A Face Like Glass (my favorite Hardinge!); there’s something more immersive and propulsive about that one, whereas this is dense and slow to start and perhaps a little too long. But it’s still great. What an impressive, powerful piece of writing.

April 2015: This book is so much that I don't think I could do it justice reviewing it. This is a story that could be read as more that itself, but doesn't need to be, because it's so rich as "just" a story. It's about two peoples on one island, and disparate bodies of government, and fringe groups, and volcanoes, and myths. It's a little dense, but in such a rewarding way; the prose is so precise in its lyricism; the way the plot fits together is nothing short of genius.

I'm not reviewing, because then I'd have to discuss themes and development, and this book is so much that it's almost overwhelming to deconstruct. More than the sum of its parts, as it were. I'm just taking a moment to note that it holds up so well upon reread.

The US title is The Lost Conspiracy and the international title is Gullstruck Island - if you can get the UK version, go for it. I love my matched UK Hardinge set.
Profile Image for nastya .
420 reviews257 followers
February 23, 2021
I would say this is the easiest FH novel to get into that I’ve encountered yet. It’s a beautiful story of compassion and dealing with xenophobia and greed. It tackles important questions of revenge and forgiveness. The world building is impeccable and imaginative as always . FH makes creating rich interesting worlds look very easy and it’s really really not. 👸
And for a children's book - what a smart conversation about racism. There's no "well you looked different and I was afraid and now I've talked to you and you are ok, and so I'm not racist anymore".
And more like "well, we need slave labour for money purposes, well we have this tribe that is different, but I think they are savages and really we are helping them with their uncontrollable breeding by using them as slaves and giving structure to their chaotic primitive lives and now we can all sleep better being slavers"
Profile Image for Keertana.
1,126 reviews2,164 followers
May 18, 2013
It's difficult for me to imagine reading a Frances Hardinge novel as a young child. Although her books are marketed as being Middle Grade, I fervently wish I could travel to every library and bookstore and rip off that constricting label. If there is any author whose writing transcends all ages and successfully manages to write complex stories that are never dumbed down for a younger audience, it is Frances Hardinge. Although The Lost Conspiracy is not my favorite Hardinge novel - A Face Like Glass still has my heart (and the Kleptomancer refuses to give it back) - this fantasy adventure is just as heartfelt, moving, unique, compelling, and utterly original.

The Lost Conspiracy takes place on Gullstruck Island, colonized by outsiders years ago but still thriving with a village of original islanders known as the Lace. The Lace, however, are foreign and inspire fear in the hearts of the islanders and all those who don't understand their peaceful ways. Into this tribe is born Arilou, the only Lost to ever be born into a Lace tribe. The Lost are a rare group who can control their five senses, sending them away from their bodies to explore the island. Hathin, the type of girl who is easily overlooked, has been assigned with the task of caring for Arilou - a purpose she has devoted her entire life to. When a mysterious tragedy is blamed upon the Lace, it is up to Hathin to take Arilou to safety and maybe, just maybe, find it within herself to emerge from the shadows she has lived in and find her true destiny.

Frankly speaking, I struggled quite a bit with The Lost Conspiracy. It's first few chapters sucked me in, but its pace drastically slowed afterwards and I don't think it was until the last third of the novel that I truly became fully invested in this tale. Nevertheless, despite that minor qualm, The Lost Conspiracy is a masterpiece of literature. Although it doesn't contain nearly as many light bulb moments as A Face Like Glass did, it still keeps you turning the pages frantically. Hathin is such an endearing protagonist, at once distraught over her situation and still filled with hope. While she remains to be rather naive, her cunning and skills come to light as the novel progresses and she truly comes into her own without others to define her or her status. It is this journey of self-growth that makes The Lost Conspiracy so fantastic. Granted, its mystery, conspiracy, and idea are all masterfully rendered in and of themselves, but Hathin steals the show in every way. Although there is much darkness in this tale - what seems like too much, almost, for middle grade readers to understand and fully comprehend the magnitude of - The Lost Conspiracy remains a novel of immense hope. Underneath all its complexity, it stands as a one of the best coming-of-age novels ever written and leaves your heart nearly bursting with joy at the very end.

You can read this review" and more on my blog, Ivy Book Bindings.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,408 reviews463 followers
July 4, 2018
I'm loving this. Because of the setting and audience, it's natural to think of Nation. I love books where characters are trying to think their way out of their difficulties, and Hathin definitely is.

I agonized a bit about attaching the "autism" label, because there isn't anything explicit in the text. But Arilou's bahavior, as viewed by Hathin, sounds familiar, especially the flapping hands. Likewise, although the story is set generations after the colonials arrive, we're given some of the first-contact back story of the island.

Unless the whole thing falls apart suddenly, I'm expecting it to be one of my best reads of the year. Hardinge isn't as funny as Pratchett (especially not in this one), but like him she's writing about tragedy with a very light and empathetic hand. She allows her characters a chance to feel their grief, but she also gives them moments of hilarity. Unlike some much-lauded books I read as a child, it's not all grim death and misery. Sort of like The Amber Spyglass without the romance or philosophy.

It continued awesome. Read it now.

[I would have thought that the popularity of British YA titles would make publishers reluctant to change. Why is this Gullstruck Island in the UK and The Lost Conspiracy in the US? I keep thinking there's more Hardinge goodness to read and then becoming sad. Oh, well, perhaps she'll live and write for a very long time. :]

Library copy
Profile Image for Heidi.
756 reviews175 followers
June 22, 2017
Frances Hardinge’s Twitter profile describes her “Writer of downright odd children’s books. Hobbies include travelling, dressing in period costume and scuba diving. Addicted to volcanoes and trying new things.” And from reading The Lost Conspiracy, I have to surmise that all of this is true. The Lost Conspiracy certainly is downright odd, but it is also downright original, downright adventurous, and downright wonderful. Not to mention it is full of volcanoes and trying new things for both those characters involved and those who read it.

Because The Lost Conspiracy is so completely unique, I almost don’t know where to start in talking about it. I want all of you to almost pick it up blind, knowing nothing but that you will (probably) love it, and please if you have the wherewithal to do so, go ahead and leave to pick it up now. For those of you who like to see me blather on and drool a bit on my shoes when it comes to book evangelizing, read on!

The Lost Conspiracy in its most primal form tells the story of two sisters, one who was born among the chosen few, and one who was born to be invisible and serve. Both were born Lace. The Lace are the native peoples of Gullstruck Island who have resided there since time immemorial, long before others came to the island. When those others came, seeking to turn the island into a home for their dead, the Lace were pushed to the coasts, treated like an infestation and forever regarded with prejudice and fear. The Lace are a people unlike any other. They smile all of the time, and do not quite understand the expressions of others. Their names are created to imitate the sounds of nature, so as not to draw attention from the volcanoes they live near–surely they will not look upon you if they hear only bird calls or water songs. The Lace burn their dead, and scatter their ashes to the wind, forgetting the names of those gone before them and never ever writing them down.

Of course, their culture is in stark contrast to the rest of the island, those who remember their dead and honor them before the living. These people carve out the best lands for their dead, so that they may have comfort in the afterlife, and towns slowly die from the inside out as the plots of the dead grow and the homes of the living must uproot. Neither culture can understand the other, and it is true that we always fear what we cannot understand.

The Lost are a people unto themselves, rarely born, they are the messaging system of Gullstruck Island. The Lost can unhinge their senses from their body and set them afloat, informing on coming storms, lost goats, and passing messages from one coast to the other. Arilou was born Lost, or at least, the Hollow Beasts tribe would like to think as much as the notoriety and respect granted from having a Lost in their midst is too precious to overlook. The reality, however, is no one is quite sure if Arilou is really Lost, or merely wander-witted. Hathin was born solely for the purpose of acting as Arilou’s interpreter. It is her responsibility to make sure that no one ever doubts Arilou’s abilities–but how can she fool the island when she is unsure herself?

The Lost Conspiracy isn’t the story of a chosen one. If anything, it’s the story of a girl who was chosen for nothing, believed to be nothing, and treated like nothing until she became everything and these weaknesses bore her strength. Hathin has made her way into the ranks of my favorite female leads by being completely blind to her own strengths, but unyielding to what anyone else would deem her fate. Hathin is four feet of courage, she is part pirate, she has a frighteningly audacious spirit who will take her over, and yet she is completely forgettable to everyone. Anyone in The Lost Conspiracy save Frances Hardinge would have you believe this is Arilou’s tale, and perhaps that really is the conspiracy.

Each and every character in The Lost Conspiracy is so strong, even those we hardly know we get to feel so completely. We know what certain characters have been through in the way that Hathin relates to them, we see those who could be more, and those who are looking for a challenge. I also kid you not when I state that one of the villains was the most infuriatingly evil antagonist I have encountered since Dolores Umbridge. Frances Hardinge allows us to see into the minds of the villains, but the fact that the depth of The Lost Conspiracy remains a complete mystery is a testament to the adept hand with which this story is created. I could happily expound upon my favorite characters, but I feel even revealing their names in tandem with my final thoughts could potentially spoil the journey, and so I will leave it here.

The Lost Conspiracy isn’t just a darn good story, it’s a story that can open your mind and change the way you approach life. It will ask you to question the meaning of stories, acknowledge the importance of understanding one another, understanding yourself, and knowing what you need from life. It is a story of stories in which we get to wonder how much of what is made up just might be true, and how much is really just conspiracy. The Lost Conspiracy exists so that when you pass the point where the stories end, you will know you can go on.

Review originally posted at Bunbury in the Stacks.
Profile Image for Kathrin Passig.
Author 49 books394 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
November 9, 2022
Es fing ganz gut an, aber so nach der Hälfte der 500 Seiten musste ich das alte Zitat von Julian Barnes über Magischen Realismus nachlesen gehen: "Nein, dieses Nebeneinander von billigem Leben und teuren Prinzipien, von Religion und Banditentum, von überraschender Ehre und willkürlicher Grausamkeit; nein, dieser Daiquiri-Vogel, der seine Eier auf den Flügeln ausbrütet; nein, dieser Fredonna-Baum, dessen Wurzeln an den äußersten Spitzen seiner Zweige wachsen und vermöge dessen Fasern der Bucklige die hochmütige Frau des Hazienda-Besitzers auf telepathischem Wege schwängern kann; nein, dieses Opernhaus, das nun vom Dschungel überwuchert ist." Ein Ende der Handlung war auch nicht in Sicht, es wirkte so, als würde es noch unendlich lang so weitergehen, die Protagonistin lernt ein weiteres Volk auf der kleinen Insel kennen, das seine Eier auf den Flügeln ausbrütet, und dann noch eins und noch eins und noch eins. Nicht zu Ende gelesen.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
428 reviews184 followers
June 6, 2023
This might be Hardinge's most ambitious book - she tackles colonialism, impact on indigenous peoples, superstition, genocide, and difficulty family relationships head on, in a very thoroughly-imagined island setting. Yet it took me almost three weeks to get through it, and I knew that I did not give it enough attention and thought to get the most out of it. Other Hardinge books have sucked me right in and kept me flipping pages madly, but I was much less engaged with this one - bobbing on the surface instead of immersed.

I may come back to The Lost Conspiracy at some later point.
Profile Image for Jill.
349 reviews338 followers
January 15, 2013
Foolishly, when I was around 17 years old, I mused out loud to my friend, “I don’t know why it’s so difficult to be a successful artist. All you have to do is create something entirely new.”

Entirely new. I said this like it was as simple as tying a shoe or picking a flower. Of course, it’s not that simple; it’s immensely difficult to be original. Just ask Nicholas Sparks and every Tom Cruise movie ever. Hey, even ask Shakespeare!

But in The Lost Conspiracy, Hardinge fulfills my age 17 requirements for membership to the successful artist club because the story, characters, and world she creates are familiar but ultimately unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Gullstruck Island is a place where volcanoes fall in love; where certain people can detach their five senses from their bodies in order to witness events on the north of the island with their eyes while hearing a whisper on the south of the island with their ears; where individuals love their ancestors so much, they’ll gladly sacrifice arable land to expansive tombs instead. It’s also a place suffering from the effects of colonialism, a place full of internment camps for hated and distrusted tribes, a place where mass murder of a disliked tribe is acceptable. This wonderful, dark island becomes a breathing landmass with Hardinge’s fantastical prose.

When people talk in clichés about reading, they often say something like, “I read because it allows me to explore other worlds.” I agree with this statement, but The Lost Conspiracy reminded me that those worlds need not reflect our own. It reminded me that, in fact, it is better to escape to a world completely zany, entirely backwards, and not quite sane.

To accompany Frances Hardinge on more of her imaginative acid trips, I will be picking up her backlist shortly. She seems like the perfect author for a reader desiring beautiful prose, wacky plots, strong heroines, and original settings.
Profile Image for Jason.
1,179 reviews256 followers
November 11, 2016
3 Stars

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge was simply an uneven read for me. This comes across as a light version of an adult oriented fairytale. The writing is one the best part of this story as Hardinge brought this place to life. Hathin, the young female main protagonist is the star of this book and the only reason that I finished it. I loved this passionate, strong, fearless, and bossy young woman. She will be unforgettable.

I had problems with this book as after you reach the midway point, things slow way down, to a point that I wanted to stop. The pacing, the plot, and the sheer length all put me to my limits. I also was waiting for something to happen to make it all worth it, which never occurred.

I wanted to like this one but just found it okay. I really enjoyed the writing by Frances Hardinge and will surely try another book by her some day.
Profile Image for The Girl with the Sagittarius Tattoo.
2,133 reviews267 followers
July 13, 2022
I waited too long to DNF - 70%! The truth is, I checked out of this story around the halfway point and tried to stick with it anyway. My mistake.

This is a case of it's me, not the author. I really should be enjoying this surprisingly dark tale about island tribalism, backstabbing, and the tangled webs we weave when a tribe tries to pass off a girl who is probably an "imbecile" as psychically gifted. I'm pretty sure what ruined it for me was the plotline involving superior foreigners who come to the island periodically to test these Lost natives. It felt worn out and boring. I was much more intrigued by the politics of the tribes, jockeying for resources and supremacy among each other, and the mystery of what happened to the rest of the Lost.

Plenty of other readers would enjoy this book much more than I did. Don't let my experience deter you too much.
Profile Image for Holly.
529 reviews62 followers
December 4, 2009
Have I said I love my job? Besides working for and amongst the love and hobby of my life right now – books - I’m surrounded by coworkers that are also avid book readers. What this also means is that I have the privilege of hearing about excellent books that I never would’ve otherwise. So when the children’s librarian claims a book to be the best she’s read all year (and she’s read a lot of good ones), you better listen. Because The Lost Conspiracy is just one of those under-the-radar books that deserves any hype and shout outs it can get.

The Lost are special, rare people who are born with the ability to send their senses away from their body, like dust carried by the wind. They essentially control Gullstruck; bringing tributes to towns and acting as the communication network for the volcano-laden island.

The Lace are the native brown-skinned islanders of Gullstruck. Decades ago when the Calvalcaste invaded the island, claimed it as a sanctuary for the ashes of their dead, and built cities on top of their sacred temples, the Lace fought back by human-sacrificing the colonizers. As punishment they were banished to the Coast and the Caves of the Hollow Beasts where food was scarce and shelter from the daily jungle rains was negligible.

Twelve-year-old Hathin is the invisible attendant to her sister, the Lady Lost Arilou. Though Arilou is the only Lace Lost and is responsible for supplying much-needed food and provisions to Hollow Beasts village, she is not the prophetess and oracle a Lost is supposed to be. She seems to speak only gibberish and requires Hathin to attend to her every physical need as well as act as her “translator”. What is not known is how much Hathin actually understands and how much Arilou can comprehend. When the Lost Inspector Skein and his assistant Minchard Prox show up for Arilou’s Lost testing, Hathin couldn’t feel more helpless. How will Arilou pass the tests if she cannot speak coherently? With the life of her village at stake Hathin must find a way to keep the fraud a secret. But even as Hathin’s plan unfolds, she’s unknowingly caught up in a murderous island-wide conspiracy which points to her and her people. On the run and with no one to turn to, Hathin must find the determination to go over volcano and mountain and do absolutely anything and everything to protect Arilou.

I still can’t get over what an odd but inventive fantasy The Lost Conspiracy is. Not only that but the writing is singularly poetic and deeply-laden with meaning it’s difficult to find many YA novels that compare. It takes more than a few pages to find your bearings in this fully-lit world and metaphoric-heavy writing (I had to use my 100-page rule) but once you do it sweeps you off your feet and rather than getting lost in the complex world of peoples, languages, and politics; an entire personified physical world; the changing third-person narrative; and the sometimes distractingly poetic language with which it’s written it has swept you off your feet and 576 pages feels like nothing. This doesn’t represent the book justly as a whole but here’s a small taste of what I mean:
“The winds shifted again, the ashen clouds puckered and plummeted, and everyone glimpsed something enormous plunging through the valley and the town below: sleek, gray-brown, and muscular like an enormous serpent, its back strewn with timber and trees that it did not notice. Not fire but water, a dragon of scalding, murky, terrible water. As they watched, chunks of slope below them vanished as though bitten away by a vast, invisible maw. Bite after bite, working its way up the slope…”

See what I mean? Frances Hardinge is both intimidatingly brilliant and limitlessly imaginative. This book is not capable of being hated. You’ll either love it or it will simply not be your cup of tea. I adored it, not only for what I already mentioned but because of the characterizations. Hathin grows so much and learns how to make her life what she wants it to be. Sorrow, the white volcano; the King of Fans, her tall neighboring mountain; Lord Spearhead and other topical features also become dear characters that have a larger role to play in the story. I even came to enjoy the confusing dialects (such as Doorsy) and the many tribes and people such as the Sours. The absolutely frightening bounty hunters called Ashwalkers – who literally gain power from wearing their victim’s ashes - were again, pure brilliance. Loved, loved, loved this book! These images will stay with me for a long time.
Profile Image for Chachic.
586 reviews204 followers
October 29, 2010
Originally posted here.

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge comes highly recommended by Megan Whalen Turner and you can see her talk about the book here.

At 576 pages, this is a pretty hefty volume so I couldn't lug it around with me. I decided to start reading it last weekend because it was a long weekend. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish it. I spent my days at work, constantly thinking of the time when I could go back home and continue reading this story set in a lush, tropical island called Gullstruck. I know Gullstruck is a fictional island but it sort of reminds me of the Philippines because of the coastal setting and the presence of indigenous, brown-skinned people (the Lace) who are largely mistrusted by Towners and colonists. People who have magic in Gullstruck are the Lost, beings who are able to send out their senses out to the world. Their senses fly out of their bodies to watch over the island and carry messages back forth between the towns and villages. Twelve-year-old Hathin was born to take care of her older Lost sister, Arilou. Lost children aren't fully in control of their body because their senses aren't firmly rooted in their physical selves. Hathin is my kind of girl - smart and resourceful, she constantly struggles to handle the unexpected circumstances thrown her way. At the start of the book, she's used to being in the sidelines because people don't notice her and she feels like her sole purpose in life is to take care of her sister.

One word to describe this book? Brilliant. Even before I started reading the book, I knew it was going to be good because it was recommended by MWT. It's a very absorbing read that will suck you in and wouldn't let you go until you finish the story. This is the kind of book that should be better known, I'm kind of surprised that it isn't that popular. I think it would appeal to a lot of people because being classified between middle grade and young adult fiction, the book is pretty easy to read. Everything about The Lost Conspiracy is wonderful - from the worldbuilding to the storytelling and characterization. It has a varied set of believable characters and all of them are fully realized to the extent that you'll root for the heroes and you'll even understand the motives of the villains. You will never get bored with the fast-paced plot, which twists and turns so much that you can never predict what will happen next. Just when you think you've figured things out, Frances Hardinge throws you for a loop. Not that surprising since the word "conspiracy" is right there in the title. I don't think I can write a review that will do this book justice so let me end this post by saying that I'd love for all of you to read this book, especially epic fantasy fans out there looking to sink their teeth into something really good.
Profile Image for Craig.
1,342 reviews9 followers
August 19, 2020
I found it somewhat difficult to rate this book, despite the fact that I ended up giving it 5 stars. I almost gave up on it several times - early on - but by the end, I was a bit in awe. The author has used wonderfully poetic language to create an incredibly strange, complex, very odd world. Yet, like one of the Lost whose senses roam the world divorced from their bodies, you are kept at just a bit of a remove from all that happens - at least partially because much of the world's complexity and strangeness is demonstrated, rather than explained. This may make you lose interest. Or it may pull you further into the story and characters in an attempt to better understand both. Obviously, I was pulled onward, and am very glad I was.

Re-read 2/13. Original rating confirmed. This is such a *full* book - an amazingly complex world filled with characters and a plot to match.

Re-read 8/16. Again, 8/20.
Profile Image for Jacki.
1,150 reviews47 followers
July 6, 2010
While the plot is incredibly slow and the book could have been better had it been at least 100 pages shorter, the writing here is beautiful and the world-building is flawless. The civilizations and their customs ring true, and are more reminiscent of ancient South American cultures than the standard pre-industrial European-type villages so popular in fantasy works. I will say that all the talk of installing gems in teeth made me wince, though! The heroine showed plenty of grit in her actions, but I felt that her personality seemed flat. I was more involved with the secondary characters than with Hathin herself. Ultimately the walking-speed plot made this book tough to trudge through, but I'm intrigued enough that I will probably read the author's earlier work.

Recommend to: Fantasy readers age 12-15 who like long reads and have plenty of patience, readers who like well-built worlds with PLENTY of detail, Harry Potter fans, anyone sick of the angst and overly-dramatized romance in YA fiction today

Don't recommend to: Readers who prefer page-turners, anyone who's just had or needs dental work
Profile Image for bronwyn.
56 reviews4 followers
June 7, 2018
I’m a little at a loss to review this. There’s so much to love, mythos and character and world and prose and political analysis and anticolonial narrative drive. Incredible villains. And, of course, the volcanoes.

But its treatment of Arilou is a thing I think I can’t get past. At first I thought maybe Hardinge had set out to write a story about intellectual disability and just wasn’t doing it very well, in some places doing it very badly, which was problem enough, but having finished the novel I think it’s maybe worse than that; I think maybe she didn’t think about disability at all. It didn’t occur to her that one of the central problems of the story, Arilou’s personhood, came with any ethical responsibility. The more I think about it the worse I think it is. I’m sorry this is so vague — I keep starting to catalogue what frustrates me and it quickly becomes too big. Anyway, a big letdown in this respect from an author I otherwise hugely admire.
Profile Image for Hana.
467 reviews13 followers
December 13, 2021
Listen, it's exceedingly rare for me to read the same book twice back to back, within the space of a week. Frances Hardinge's writing is as masterful as always, but her understanding of people and society is unparalleled too. It's not a perfect book, but the thematic and emotional impact cannot be overstated.

CW: settler colonialism; forced work camps; racism; mass murder/attempted genocide; grief; violence (including gun violence)
Profile Image for Jessy (OCD Anonymous).
68 reviews34 followers
June 5, 2014
Frances Hardinge:

Never mind that I’ve only officially read two Frances Hardinge books... I LOVE THE WOMAN!!

Gullstruck Island or The Lost Conspiracy as it’s called in some countries is a story of two sisters, as different from each other as day and night, who have to transverse their entire world to right a wrong done to them after their entire village was killed –murdered really- unjustly under false accusations. At least that’s the story in a sentence or two. In reality, Frances Hardinge creates a wonderful multi-layered tale of adventure, betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, love and family.

The best thing for me with Frances Hardinge is how she’s never condescending. It’s such a small thing, but it goes a really long way. She always operates on the premise that children are intelligent enough to understand the subtle yet powerful nuances of human emotion, human motives and human interaction. It’s not black and white with her; there’s no evil overlord waiting to whisk children away who has to be stopped by a fearless, young, unassuming girl/boy with marvellous talent. Frances Hardinge isn’t shy about her grey areas –hell, she flouts the entire system. There’s a probably a neon pink, luminous green, bright orange, unequivocally polychromatic area, an un-romanticized rendition of life.

The setting for this book was completely remarkable and I’m really not just saying that. Typically I tend to fall in love with books for the characters or the plot or the dialogue but.... for the setting? That’s about as likely as me reading a Game of Thrones book without a death in it. But this setting, this archipelago of nature and marvel and vagary drew me in with its magical landscape and before I knew it, I was at the foot of an exploding volcano watching in immobile wonderment as it roared to life around me.

Usually, when faced with geographically descriptive books, I draw myself into my covers and steel myself for hours of mind-numbing boredom and only manage to get through the books by turning my reading experience into a battle of perseverance. So it was a pleasant surprise to find out that reading the descriptions of Gullstruck Island wasn’t a chore –it was a joy! Frances Hardinge has such a talent for vivid imagery that even when you read her descriptions, they sound like stories. The mountains that cover the entire span of the island aren’t just mountains, they have history, they have legends, they have the ancient power of existentially immovable things. There was the Lord of Fans –the broken-hearted potentate of the land, who was so deeply wounded by his lover’s betrayal that he remembers things front to back. Sorrow –the gelid, unforgiving, conscienceless, mountain princess, who draws people in with her beauty even as she breaks their hearts with her icy nature. Spearhead –the vociferous, saturnine, unwelcoming brother of the Lord of fans; whose dormancy forestalls his dreams of vengeance and retribution. The Crackgem –who reads more like the cantankerous, mercurial, unpredictable and slightly mad Uncle, who is just as likely to pull you into a hug or punch you to the ground.

Because of our familiarity with the geographical history of the place, everything else falls together perfectly. When there’s a slight unexpected breeze, Spearhead is sighing. When the sky is red, The Lord of Fans is mourning something bad that will happen in the near future. When the earth rumbles, Crackgem is laughing. When there’s a landslide, Sorrow has been offended. So you see every crack, every fissure, every nook and cranny, ever blade of grass and drop of dew feels like a small piece in a wider, bigger, more expansive, less knowable vista. There is such great personification in the descriptive nature of this book that the setting feels less like a setting and more like a character.

But now onto the real characters in the book... Hathin –our protagonist- belongs to a tribe called The Lace. The Lace are a friendly, earthy, tightly-knit community, with a precocious understanding of the island and its secrets. They know when a storm will strike before anyone else, they know all the secret underground caves and passes, they know how to navigate around the island as well as the multitudinous creatures that inhabit its soils. They put shells on their teeth and smile all the time but there’s a strong dislike for the Lace among the island folk, because no one really knows the true nature of their smiles. And to be honest, The Lace did freak me out a little. People who smile all the time are creepy.

The Lace were an exception, remaining desperately, stubbornly, painfully distinct. In spite of all the distrust and persecution, the Lace hugged their traditional strangeness, their aloneness, for it was all they had left.

One day though, all of the Lost on the island are killed and people naturally, blame the Lace. The Lost are as indivisible to the island as food and water; they’re the islands communicators, the people who bring them news of the outside world; the people who prepare them for storms and sunshine; the people who know warn them when danger is approaching; they are everything; the very heart and soul of the island and then one day, just like that, they’re gone. Hathin’s village is blamed and because of this blame everyone is murdered apart from Hathin and her sister Arilou –the only Lost left alive. The concept of The Lost, like many of Hardinge’s ideas, is completely unique. Even now, after having read the whole book I’m not entirely sure I know how The Lost work.

Like all Lost, he had been born with his senses loosely tethered to his body, like a hook on a fishing line. He could let them out, then reel them in and remember all the places his mind had visited meanwhile. Most Lost could move their senses independently, like snails’ eyes on stalks. Indeed, a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea.

After The Lost died and people begin hunting Arilou, the only available option for Hathin is to take Arilou and run for their lives while hoping that along the way, they discover the mystery of the dead Lost.

Hathin, for me, was the icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, the thick slice of exquisitely melted cheese on a piece of amply-topping-filled pizza. Hathin was the kind of protagonist you fall in love with. I didn’t love her the same way I loved Neverfell from A Face Like Glass. It wasn’t this situation where you can’t help but love someone because they’re so sweet and naive. You love Hathin because she is determined; because she’s wispy, and she has a wide mouth and brows that are too far apart and a forgettable face; because she’s constantly overshadowed and constantly forgotten and so still and quiet that you’d think she was timid but in actuality, she has reserves of will that add up to the spirit of one hundred men heading for battle. She is a little scorpion; tiny, quick and deadly. She is smart and innovative and loving. She takes care of Arilou dutifully every day; sometimes she grows tired of her seemingly imbecilic sister, but for the most part, Hathin loves Arilou with all her heart. She stands alone; a human parapet, a palisade of stone, and protects Arilou from the entire world.

It was Tomki who broke the astonished silence.
‘I think Hathin can do it. You know what she’s like when she’s possessed.’
‘When I’m what?’ Hathin stared at him, stupefied.
‘Oh . . . sorry.’ Tomki wrinkled his brow amicably. ‘Not possessed then . . . but, you know, when
that other spirit takes over your body and makes everyone obey you.’
‘Oh, that spirit.’ Therrot’s forehead cleared. ‘The one that took control in the ditch outside
Jealousy, and again in the marketplace when Hathin claimed that woman for the Stockpile, and again when the palace was under attack, and . . .’
‘And when you hit me.’ Tomki smiled at Hathin with a hint of embarrassment. ‘You know, when your voice changes, and your personality changes, and the little worried crinkles in your forehead disappear, and you’re suddenly eight feet tall . . .’

I loved her ultimate character development in this book. When we first meet Hathin, she is so unsure of herself. She hangs on tight to the fact that Arilou is useless and needs her, even if Arilou constant stream of ineffectiveness makes her tetchy. She is completely unaware of her own brilliance and strength and so she makes scaffolding out of Arilou’s need and uses it to shore herself up against all the trials and tribulations she sees before her.

Despite herself, Hathin hesitated briefly before departing. For a moment she wanted to throw herself down next to her mother and ask, ‘What do I do? How can I fool a Lost Inspector? Oh, what do I do?’ But she said nothing. There were invisible walls around those things that could not be discussed. Sometimes Hathin could almost see these walls, shaped from clay and tears, bearing the handprints of generations of Lace. She was too young, too tired and too worried even to think of climbing them. Her mother, wrestling the reeds with her strong, calloused hands, was unreachable.

But by the end of the book, Hathin had found herself. It wasn’t this miraculous change where she realized that she can control the sun and the moon with a wave of her fingers but she’s more confident, more sure of herself, more comfortable in her own skin. Sure she’s still a little bit insecure, but come on people, she’s twelve. But you can definitely see the trappings of uncontainable potential in her.

Hathin was nowhere. Hathin was everywhere. Everything in the deathly landscape had her secretiveness, her careful blandness, her quietness, her stubbornness. Hathin, whispered the windborne dust as it settled on the slopes. Hathin, lisped the ash as it rained upon the plain. >

The theme of revenge in this book was handled spectacularly. Hathin wasn’t your run-off-the-mill I-WILL-BURN-THE-WORLD-AS-IT-HAS-BURNED-ME-NOTHNG-SHALL-SURVIVE type of revenge. Nor was she an ‘Oh No! Killing is bad!! These people have taken everything I love but I’d never hurt them.’ No. Hathin wasn’t bullshitting. She was angry and rightfully so; she had lost her entire village overnight and had no family anymore. She was stranded with her sister who never paid her any mind and the whole world seemed about to implode.

If you’ve got enough anger, then you just go mad. A calm, cool sort of mad. And then it’s all easy.

Hathin was defiant. She wasn’t going to stand for being mistreated. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight. No matter what Hathin kept fighting, kept holding out hope and her fierceness was a wonder to behold.

Hathin’s grip slipped a little, and as the dry stem rasped in her fingers it caught Jimboly’s attention. For a moment the dentist turned her head to look at her. There was hatred in her dark eyes, and madness, but also a hint of incomprehension.
You are dust, her eyes said. You are dirt. You are nothing. Why do you bother surviving? Why are you still alive?
I am the dust in your eyes,
was the answer in Hathin’s look. I am the dirt that will bury you. I am the nothingness waiting to open up under your feet. And I can hold on longer than you can.
Hathin opened her mouth and screamed. It was not a scream of pain or fear; it was the explosion of the little black egg in her core which had been waiting to hatch.

But despite all this, Hathin also manages to be compassionate. Frances Hardinge shows us that vengeance is a double-edged sword that hurts all parties involved. She shows us that your anger and your hate will drive you, even as it destroys you. She lets you know that although it is hard, it is possible to forgive.

Another refreshing thing about this book was that Frances Hardinge completely eschewed all the main tropes when crafting her villain. As I said, he wasn’t a hulking, omnipotent beast or a fierce, unstoppable warrior. He wasn’t a vindictive, merciless villain or a power-hungry, voracious criminal. He was merely a misguided man, doing the wrong things, for what he believed were the right reasons.

Camber was middle-aged man of slight stature; a man so at home in the shadows that he became known as a man with no face; no one ever remembered him. He was the kind of man who was always there, even though you had no idea when he arrived. He was that equanimous presence at your right hand that always seems to know what to do. His instructions were always delivered sotto voce; his planning was always done in the shadows. He wasn’t menacing or frightening, he wasn’t the sort of man you’d see and run away, but he was no less deadly because of it.

One thing I have a special liking for in books – I mean, it doesn’t have to be there but if it is, it makes me love the book all the more- and that is, a good last page. I like to read a book’s last page and have it end in a way that will make me reminiscent of the entire story the moment I leave it. I want a book that lets me read its last page smiling; whether I’m smiling through tears or whether it’s a small satisfied smile or whether it’s a big, goofy grin or whether it’s a big hearty laugh… Regardless of the means, I like my books to have that magical quality of a wonderful last page and a good last line. Frances Hardinge’s books have this and it makes the reading experience so much more wholesome. And when I finished this book, I was nearly bursting at the seams with everything it made me feel.

And then Therrot flung himself backwards on the slope and howled at the hills, for true joy like true pain does not care how it looks or sounds.

You can also find this book on my blog: Sociopathic Histrionics
Profile Image for Vee_Bookish.
1,344 reviews304 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
April 5, 2022
I literally have no idea what's going on but a mentally disabled person (lemme know if that's the wrong term) was called an inbecile in the first chapter so do I even want to continue
Profile Image for Linda.
464 reviews1 follower
March 27, 2017
Although this book was not my favorite by Hardinge, I am still amazed by her imagination in creating these lush and magical worlds. 3 stars for the story and 5 stars for the world-building.
Profile Image for Helen.
877 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2017
Another gem; beautiful prose and inventive names. A tale of bravery and loyalty.
Profile Image for Madeline O'Rourke.
845 reviews101 followers
April 21, 2018
I admit that I have owned Gullstruck Island for many years and have tried to read it many times. For whatever reason, I never made it past the prologue or first chapter (all together less than ten pages). I finally did it, though—I kept with it, and I'm bloody glad I did.

Gullstruck Island is just fantastic. I really don't know what else to say about it. Hathin is an extraordinary main character; everything about the island & the Lost was fascinating; the writing is beautiful. But, really, if there's one thing that sticks with me, more than anything else about this novel, it's how well developed it is. The characters, and moreover, the island, come fully formed and wonderfully so. Hardinge seems to have thought of everything in creating this world, establishing ethnic groups, cultures, traditions, socio-economic factors, natural elements like the beetles and the volcanos. In no way am I, as a reader, left wanting, and for a standalone fantasy, that's brilliant.

I suppose the only other significant note I have is of the target audience. All those times I couldn't get into the novel, I was right in the target demographic, but I'm not now. I'm glad I read Gullstruck Island, because I loved it, but I can't help but feel that 12-year-old me would never have gotten into it, not matter how far she continued reading. It seems to me that the language and complexity of the story would have gone right over my head (and I wasn't a dumb kid). So, though it is very firmly a middle grade story, I found Hardinge's writing style, in all its love for adjectives, to be equally (if not more) suitable for an older audience. Just a thought.

Regardless, Gullstruck Island is a fantastic standalone fantasy: it's fun, it's interesting, the world is insanely well-developed and I adored it.
Profile Image for Lesley.
318 reviews18 followers
October 28, 2009
This is one of those books that people will either love with a passion or--not hate--but simply not read because it's very long and very wrong for them. The language is amazing--it's hard to find the language to describe it. But if you can't throw yourself into the foaming stream of metaphors and let it sweep you along, you might end up getting stuck in an eddy of words (see? I tried!). The world that's created with these words is just as complex and densely packed and you'd better keep up because the author isn't going to wait for you. If you do, you'll feel like you've truly entered this amazing place, with the ability to see every detail on each tiny flicker bird and to soar above the island and its steaming volcanoes like one of the Lost. Add to all this meditations on colonialism, superstition, racism, loyalty, revenge, and identity and set it in a fantasy world where there are people with brown skin instead of all white and jungles instead of the meadows of Hobbiton and you've got a masterpiece that I'll have to work to find readers for--but those readers will be very, very happy.
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,432 reviews543 followers
May 17, 2019
The Lost are a rare group capable of sending their spirit senses anywhere they please. When Arilou was young, she exhibited all the signs of being Lost, and so her younger sister Hathin has spent her life devoted to caring for her body while her mind drifts elsewhere. But is Arilou really Lost, or merely a disabled girl that her entire village has built an industry around?

That's just the tip of the iceberg of the plot of this book. I am legit not smart or well educated enough to talk up all the excellent things it does, the incredible imaginative worldbuilding, the memorable characters, the heart-capturing plot, the perfect pacing.
Profile Image for Hallie.
954 reviews124 followers
February 10, 2009
Wow. This was amazing. Will write it up as soon as I can manage a bit of coherence, and can pick and choose between all the many flagged quotes I want to share...

Write-up here.
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